Australians and New Zealanders have argued about pavlova for decades but new research shows it comes from somewhere else entirely.
Australians and New Zealanders have argued about pavlova for decades but new research shows it comes from somewhere else entirely. Photo: Supplied

Beck Eleven

Apologies dear readers but there is no delicate way to break such culturally sensitive news – the pavlova belongs to the Americans and the English.

It is well known that Australians and New Zealanders have a rich history of gentle ribbing. We argue over sport and which nationality can claim Russell Crowe. We even argue over food. For decades, we have argued over who invented the pavlova.

The answer, or so the Kiwis thought, came in 2008 when Professor Helen Leach wrote The Pavlova Story: A Slice of New Zealand's Culinary History, saying the first true pavlova recipe was Pavlova Cake from New Zealand in 1929. While the dessert named after the famous Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova was a four-layered jelly from a book published in 1926.

The ballerina Anna Pavlova gave her name to many dishes, including "frogs legs a la Pavlova".
The ballerina Anna Pavlova gave her name to many dishes, including "frogs legs a la Pavlova". Photo: Supplied

However, Dr Andrew Paul Wood, a New Zealander, and Australian Annabelle Utrecht have been tracing the origins of the dish for two years. They can "categorically state" the modern pavlova began life as a German torte, eventually travelling to the US where it evolved into its final form.

They have found more than 150 pavlova-like meringue cakes served with cream and fruit prior to 1926. They have also found more than 50 dishes named after Pavlova occurring before 1927.

"The idea that it was invented in New Zealand or even Australia is a total fiction, as is the notion that the first pavlova desserts are of Antipodean origin," Wood says.

"The first recipe for a pavlova dessert is not the 1926 Davis Gelatine jelly. It is the 1911 Strawberries Pavlova recipe and this dessert is a dish on the move."

When I arrive for the interview, Wood has been beating six egg whites for 20 minutes.

"Yes, you've got good firm peaks," says Utrecht. "Nice and glossy. You're looking for form and lustre."

Wood is a Christchurch-based art writer with an interest in social history. Utrecht is visiting from her home in Queensland, where she left her media production job to pursue the pavlova.

"I became quite obsessed," she says. "Some days I was working up to 18 hours a day. I must have looked through 20,000 newspapers and at least 10,000 cookbooks and I am not joking."

She has test-driven so many recipes and had so many yolk mishaps that her most failsafe method is simply cracking the whole egg into a glass and fishing out the yolk with her fingers.

The more she found out about ballerina Anna Pavlova, the more Utrecht idolised her.

"She was ruthless in business. She understood her brand and she was every bit aware of that power. I often do things now and think, 'is that how Anna would have done it'?"

The pair, who call their research team Doc and the Frock, met over Facebook. A mutual friend claimed Annabel Langbein as one of their favourite Australian food writers. Wood said, "you're trying to claim her, just like the pav".

The usual argument broke out and eventually they took it out of the public arena and into private messages where they each walked away thinking, "I'll show her/him".

Within weeks, they were both down the rabbit hole of research, following strands of meringue dishes through the centuries.

It had always been thought Australian and New Zealand housewives added new amounts of cornflour to the basic meringue recipe to create the pavlova.

However, the pair found a corn starch company, William Duryea's maizena, that first came out in America in 1864.

This maizena, or corn starch, was imported to New Zealand in the 1890s and came with a pavlova-type recipe.

"So it makes sense that the cornflour wasn't such a unique culinary addition but has been with us for a long time and has probably come from an American-based recipe," Wood says.

"Look, the pavlova is an international dish that Australia and New Zealand have been lucky to become the guardians of and to have preserved it so well.

"It doesn't matter what we say, the pav is so built into the psyche of the two nations that you can't remove it and of course you wouldn't want to.

"No one has embraced the pavlova like Australia or New Zealand. Both countries have different approaches, I think the Australian meringue is crunchier and the classic topping is cream and passionfruit. The New Zealand one is more marshmallowy inside with cream and slices of kiwifruit.

"The first thing people do is disbelieve it but when people see the ancestry and the proof, you can't deny it."

The further back they researched, the more they found. Utrecht tried a 19th century recipe, beating the egg whites with two forks banded together.

"I whisked for over 45 minutes before I nearly started to cry. It had a nice consistency rather than getting thick and it spread so it was more like a meringue slice."

They followed the history of the German-speaking Habsburgs, whose power extended over much of Europe from the 15th to 18th centuries. The Habsburgs had a fixation for all things Spanish including "one of the most stunning cakes" called a Spanische Windtorte, a complicated combination of meringue, fruit and cream.

As German-speaking immigrants moved to America, they brought with them meringue-based desserts called schaum torte (which translates as foam cake) and baiser torte (commonly known now as Kiss Cake). A large proportion of these immigrants settled in the mid-west of America where Wood and Utrecht began picking up pockets of these recipes. They followed misspellings as well, finding the same desserts with such names as Charm Cake (from the schaum torte).

Another common cake in America around the 1940s was Forgotten Cake, essentially a meringue put in the oven at a high temperature then the oven is turned of and the meringue is left for eight hours.

"Then something fairly unique happened within one generation," Utrecht says. "Rather than putting a fruit filling inside and giving it a cream top, they just made the meringue, put cream on the top and finished it off with fruit. So if I was to make you one of those, you would not be able to tell the difference between that and a pav.

"Meringue as a phenomenon goes crazy after 1900, all housewives want to have some meringue dish at their bridge party, so I ring Andrew and ask why and he looks and realises it's the rise of the Dover egg beater.

"Suddenly they don't have to spend 45 minutes killing themselves with a whisk."

Whilst one avenue of research followed the desserts, another looked at foods named after the dancer. They found a French recipe for "frogs legs a la Pavlova", no doubt referring to Pavlova's ballerina's pins.

"My favourite element has been the buzz you get from finding something out. Like there is a 1911 recipe for a dish named after Anna Pavlova and nobody knows about it."

Strawberries Pavlova was first mentioned in 1911. It was not a standard pavlova but an ice or glacé type dessert first found in Auckland. Four weeks later, it turned up in Oamaru.

Given both cities are port towns, their logical deduction was that the dish was travelling on a cruise liner.

"So we found a thread of maritime recipes travelling on passenger steamers and luxury liners," says Utrecht. They believe they may have found an "ornate meringue dish" on the Titanic menu.

"You would be surprised at the number of dishes that have been named after her. It would send chills up your spine," Utrecht says.

"We do have an inkling she may even have licensed her name out but we're still following that sort of thing up," Wood says.

Their database continues to grow and now features 1024 variations on pavlova and "anything vaguely meringue-like", including references from cookbooks and magazines to menus and community church notices.

"The pavlova has meaning for people, our national identity as New Zealanders and Australians, we have latched onto it and it is now part of our mythology.

"The story of its rivalry in the Antipodes is great but what goes before it is wonderful too. We've uncovered a rich tapestry of characters, of spice and love and murder, it's a tale of intrigue."

They believe their findings will suit a book and television series.

"But we want to be clear on one thing. The pav will always be a Kiwi/Aussie dish because we've taken it to heart.

"It's so dear to the mythology of the two countries."

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